During COVID-19 crisis, California Guard prepare for wildfires

A California guardsman practices with a Pulaski hand tool during hand crew training at Camp Roberts, San Miguel, Calif., May 14, 2020. (Army photograph by Capt. Jason Sweeney)

As the COVID-19 crisis continues, so does the threat from wildfires that can flare up across California.

Over the past few years, the state has been hit by a series of devastating fires that have destroyed communities and taken dozens of lives. In 2018, the Camp Fire in Butte County was the deadliest in California history, killing 86 people.

Several hundred California National Guardsmen are activated for humanitarian missions in response to COVID-19. They’ve been assisting food banks, providing health screenings and medical support, setting up shelters and serving as linguists. Meanwhile, preparations for wildfire season are also underway.

More than 100 California guardsmen were on Camp Roberts, San Miguel, Calif., for hand crew training May 11-15 with military crew advisers from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as CAL FIRE. The advisers instructed the guardsmen on several wildland firefighting subjects such as team organization, safety skills, driver’s training, using fire shelters, chopping logs and digging trenches.

The guardsmen who took part in the training were organized into five hand crews that will augment Task Force Rattlesnake teams in Fresno, Monterey, Auburn and Redding, where they will clear potential wildfire fuels and be on call to serve as hand crews in support of CAL FIRE operations.

”We’re doing proactive prevention,” said Army Maj. Robert Langston, the commander of Task Force Rattlesnake. ”We’re doing wildfire fuels reduction to protect vital infrastructure and augmenting first responders.”

On May 14, Army Spec. Jonathan Botting from the 235th Engineer Company used a Pulaski hand tool to cut a fire break with fellow crew members on Camp Roberts as part of the hand crew training. He said he was proud to be serving on a hand crew and looking forward to helping out during fire season. 

”I think it’s going to be a great experience, both physically and for the camaraderie,” Botting said. ”It’s a good group. We already have a good bond.”

(Army photograph by Capt. Jason Sweeney)

(Army photograph by Capt. Jason Sweeney)

California guardsmen practice with fire shelters during hand crew training at Camp Roberts, San Miguel, Calif., May 14, 2020. (Army photograph by Capt. Jason Sweeney)

Hand crews are critical to helping CAL FIRE contain wildfires. The work is arduous, often requiring hikes into remote areas wearing personal protective equipment and carrying gear. The crews mop up fires, put out hotspots, cut trenches and fire breaks and remove brush and other wildfire fuels.

”My soldiers are up for the challenge,” said Army 1st Lt. Michael Lyons, a platoon leader in the 235th Engineer Company, and a civilian firefighter in Sacramento. ”They’re built to perform.”

Army Sgt. 1st Class Alben Camaya, from the 235th Engineers, is the noncommissioned officer in charge of one of the hand crews. He said the first two days of classroom training were a little stressful, but his troops were happy once they were out in the field. 

”We, as combat engineers, we love to train in the field,” Camaya said. ”We love hard work.”

This year’s training was a little different because of the extra health and safety measures due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The guardsmen wore masks when in close proximity to each other and maintained social distancing.

”COVID has proposed challenges to us to adhere to the guidelines set by the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention],” said Damon Godden, the CAL FIRE division chief. ”The Guard has stepped up to collaborate with CAL FIRE to adhere to the guidelines through frequent washing of hands, social distancing, wearing masks and separating crews.”

Eighty of the California guardsmen participating in the training at Camp Roberts were soldiers from the 79th Infantry Brigade Combat Team and the 49th Military Police Brigade. Twenty-one Airmen from all five California Air National Guard wings participated in the training. In addition, six California State Guard members were on the hand crews — a first for the organization.

On May 14, Army Col. Richard Mifsud, the commander of the 79th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, visited Camp Roberts to check on 35 of his soldiers assigned to the hand crews.

Mifsud’s brigade will supply six force packages of 80 soldiers each over the course of this fire season.

”In California, we’ve got experience with fires, floods and earthquakes,” he said. ”With COVID-19, it’s a different type of disaster in a disaster-rich state. It’s delayed our training a bit, but we’ll be ready for fire season.”

Army Lt. Col. Leslie Palmer, the commander of the 40th Brigade Support Battalion, was with Mifsud visiting the troops.

”As the BSB, we’ve done hand crew training before,” Palmer said. ”Our soldiers have been wanting to get involved. We had more volunteers than positions. The fact that they’re out here, I’m immensely proud of them. They’re hard chargers.”

Mifsud said that the California National Guard and CAL FIRE have developed a great relationship.

”In emergency management, it’s all about relationships,” he said. ”By maintaining a great relationship with CAL FIRE, we’re able to supply them with personnel to meet their needs and they supply us with firefighting equipment, and together we’re able to protect our communities in the state in which we serve.”

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